(City Commissioners | Photo credit: Emma Lee, WHYY)
Two weeks ago, City Commissioner Al Schmidt released information about the impact of a flaw in PennDOT’s Motor Voter program that allowed non-citizens to register to vote. That’s clearly a problem, but the bigger issue is everything else.
On Sept. 20th, Commissioner Schmidt’s office released information about an issue with PennDOT’s Motor Voter system. Between 2006-2017, Motor Voter asked prospective registrants questions in the wrong order, and at least 167 Philadelphians who weren’t citizens were able to register successfully. Ninety of those folks voted in at least one election.
The issue, an unequivocal fuck-up, was identified and largely resolved last year.
But while we’re looking at problems that need to be resolved, it's as good a time as ever to think about the legacy issues that plague voter registration in our own backyard.
We lost our lawsuit, and that’s not good news
Philadelphia 3.0, along with our partner Committee of Seventy, believe the Office of the City Commissioners, a byproduct of the 1950s city/county consolidation, is structurally flawed and must be replaced by a Charter-sanctioned Department of Elections.
That is, in part, why we filed a lawsuit seeking to enforce a clause in the Pennsylvania Election Code that requires the Commissioners to recuse themselves when a Home Rule Charter change question is on the ballot. The law is enforced in all other Home Rule municipalities in the state, and is designed to limit potential conflicts of interest for those who monitor and run elections.
We lost the case, and the consequence is that the Commissioners will continue to oversee and certify all ballot questions, even those that directly impact the office and the Commissioners themselves. Think Resign to Run and the proposed public financing of elections bill. And because there is no legal mechanism for a review of potential conflicts, the system is entirely without a failsafe.
The Commissioners are also just politicians
Unfortunately, the type of conflict of interest we targeted in our suit isn't the only one at issue. The Commissioners aren’t limited in their political activity above and beyond the restrictions placed on all elected city officials. This means they can raise and contribute money to help candidates. And they do. They can also serve an active role in the party system. In fact, seven of 17 Commissioners over the past 65 years have also retained their partisan roles as ward leaders, including current Chairman Clark.
This all means that the Commissions are permitted to influence the outcomes of elections—or at least try to do so—including those they’re responsible for administering and ultimately certifying.
Beyond the conflicts, there are systems-level failures we ought to be paying attention to on the eve of a hyper-competitive gubernatorial race and, farther down the line, a presidential contest that will almost certainly draw the most voters in American history.
Keystone Votes, a statewide voting rights coalition, released a report earlier this year that analyzed the rate of late processed and lost VR forms across Pennsylvania. The organization found that over 17,000 valid and on-time voter registration forms were not proceeded until just days before the Nov. 8th, 2016 election. Late processed voter registration is a problem because it typically results in the voter being listed in the supplemental poll book, which many poll workers aren’t particularly facile with, and reduces the likelihood of the voter receiving a registration card before the election. It also might raise issues with compliance with voting protections in federal law.
Notably, the rate of late processed VR forms was more than 8.5 times higher in Philadelphia than the statewide average, and nearly 20 times higher than in Allegheny County, the second-largest county in the commonwealth.
The same report also identified instances of voter registrations being lost outright by local election officials.
And what else?
In response to the Keystone Votes report, State Sen. Vince Hughes convened a hearing to discuss the findings and surface other voter-access issues in the city and state. Representatives from public interest and civic engagement groups like Asian Americans United, Disability Rights Pennsylvania, and POWER testified about the challenges they’ve faced registering voters.
Unlike nearly every other county in the state, staff at the two Boards of Elections offices refuse to give receipts for each VR form submitted. This means it’s impossible for an individual or organization to follow-up on a specific application if they notice the applicant hasn’t been added to the voter role. This issue is compounded, a few panelists added, by the fact that the staff also refuse to tell organizers their names. Considering this, organizers might consider taking a picture of the staff member who they interact with at the Election Board when submitting VR forms.
Additionally, Commissioner Lisa Deeley lamented the significant challenge the Office bears during Presidential election years. She suggested that the State might legislate a way to prevent a rush of submissions at the registration deadline. The way she phrased the idea suggested that she though organizers were burdening the Commissioners staff by submitting huge stacks of VR forms. Needless to say, the folks who bust their asses registering voters were not thrilled by this sentiment.
Why are the Commissioners processing VR forms at all?
State Sen. Art Haywood posted the most interesting, and perhaps most important, question of the hearing: But for a PA Election Code mandate, why do counties manage their own voter registration processes at all? The voter file, of course, lives at the Department of State, and an increasing number of applications are submitted through the state’s online portal.
Commissioner Deeley responded that county-managed registration systems allowed for more locally-specific service. She didn’t offer any details about what that means. But processing voter registration forms is—or, at least, should be—a rote exercise. In a best-case scenario, a decision tree guides how each VR form is processed. And that process might optimally be managed by the PA Department of State, which sets those parameters in the first place.
Which brings us to the logical conclusion of Haywood’s question. In the not-too-distant future, nearly all voter registrations will be conducted through the State’s online portal. This is the consequence of all the obvious factors, plus the fact that organizations will soon be able to white label the online voter registration platform and put it on their websites. Once the overwhelming majority of voters register online, shouldn’t the Department of State just own the process?
There’s no way to have a credible conversation about modernizing elections without considering these issues. And if we care about protecting our institutions, we need to deal with this now.
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